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Marketing and Comms
Consumers Want to Trust the Fish They Are Eating

The vast majority of consumers across 22 countries would like to see sustainability information for seafood products in stores and on packaging.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has told us that over 30 percent of stocks are fished at unsustainable levels — and consumers are starting to take note: A recent study done by leading research agency GlobeScan and international non-profit the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) found that the vast majority of consumers across 22 countries would like to see sustainability information for seafood products in stores and on packaging. While they want to hear more from the companies themselves about the sustainability of their seafood products, they also seek independent verification of brand sustainability claims.

The MSC is the leading standard setter for seafood sustainability and offers an ecolabel indicating that wild seafood was caught in a responsible way. European appetites for sustainable seafood – or sustainability in general – are stronger than those of their North American counterparts, and we’re seeing a slower uptick of labeling and demand in North America. But, the North American market for this appears to be changing and may be poised to grow - or at least, that’s a major implication emerging from the GlobeScan study.

On March 18, the two organizations are gathering a group of industry professionals to discuss the issues, at the upcoming Seafood Expo North America in Boston, in a session called What Consumers Want: The Future of Sustainable Seafood.”

We caught up with Jackie Marks, Senior Public Relations Manager at the MSC, to find out more about the study and upcoming panel discussion.

What motivated this study about consumer behavior?

Jackie Marks: The study was motivated by the MSC’s desire to understand what drives consumers when it comes to seafood purchases. Knowing that helps us to understand how the MSC blue fish label resonates with consumers, what is or isn’t working, and what impact our efforts are having. The results help us reach our collective commercial and marketing goals - we want to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. Ultimately, if we don’t understand consumers, we can’t effectively influence their attitudes and behaviors. It all ladders up to achieving our mission and vision: making sure the seafood we love is around forever.

The 2018 GlobeScan study was conducted in 22 countries with a total of 25,810 consumers surveyed. It represents one of the largest-ever global studies of seafood shopping habits, which helps to inform the seafood industry more broadly about concerns, motivations and issues consumers face when it comes to seafood consumption. The findings build on the first study, which was commissioned in 2016 with 21 countries and 21,897 consumers surveyed. The 2016 results served as a baseline which gives us a point of comparison for the 2018 results, and future results.

What does the GlobeScan research tell us that we didn’t know before?

JM: Before the GlobeScan research, our understanding of consumers’ relationships with seafood was informed predominantly through our relationship with seafood brands, retailers, and other companies’ experience with and knowledge of consumers. The GlobeScan results give us direct access to consumers’ concerns and motivations and give us an understanding of their relationship with seafood and how we can make the MSC ecolabel and sustainability relevant to their everyday lives and plates. The research also helps us provide value to our partners’ work – helping companies reach and message their sustainability commitment to shoppers/diners in a way that will resonate.

One of the major findings of the study is that seafood consumers are increasingly demanding independent verification of sustainability claims in supermarkets (70 percent in 2018, compared to 68 percent in 2016). In fact, independent labeling is particularly important to consumers buying health supplements and fish oils (76 percent), and pre-packed fresh fish (75 percent). We also learned that 70 percent of seafood consumers in North America say that they would like to hear more from companies about the sustainability of their seafood. A separate 2016 study from Nielsen also shows that companies that invest in independent labelling and do effective consumer communications outperform their competitors by 4 percent.

What this tells us is that consumers are savvy and want third party verification in order to feel that they can trust a brand or store.

What is one of the biggest challenges in changing consumer behavior?

JM: One of the biggest challenges that consumers face goes back to what I just mentioned: Trust. There is a vast amount of information that consumers may read or see about seafood issues, such as seafood fraud, overfishing, illegal fishing, and human rights and social issues. Oftentimes, information can be conflicting, which may leave consumers confused and unsure of who to trust.

Consumers reported trusting certification organizations and scientists more than government and business. The study also finds that trust in the MSC remains high and awareness of the MSC label has increased. By demonstrating the MSC’s value as a global nonprofit with an independent, third-party certification program, we hope to demonstrate our credibility as a trusted source. By making consumers aware of what the MSC blue fish label on seafood packaging represents — fish that was caught from healthy fish populations; in a way that has minimal impact on the marine ecosystem; and with effective, responsive and responsible management in place — we hope consumers will accept MSC as a trusted source. However, consumers still do not notice certifications on products — only 24 percent of consumers report seeing ecolabeled products when shopping. Consumer outreach and education is a key challenge and opportunity in achieving this.

One of our hopes is that once consumers become aware of the MSC blue fish label and what it stands for, they’ll start looking for it on all of the seafood products they buy, from fresh, frozen and canned seafood to supplements, and even pet food.

If seafood companies and retailers want consumers to choose sustainable seafood, what should they do differently?

JM: One of the main findings of the GlobeScan study is that consumers believe supermarkets’ and brands’ claims about sustainability should be clearly labeled by an independent organization. Consumers are becoming increasingly skeptical and understand that self-made claims are unreliable and untrustworthy. By having a program with independent, third-party verification, like MSC, consumers can place more trust in the product. This is a key finding for seafood companies, retailers and restaurants, because consumers are demonstrating that they are becoming savvier about on-package claims.

The study will be presented and discussed at Seafood Expo North America in Boston. Who will take part in this discussion and what do you think some of the varying view points will be?

JM: We’re excited to see the session! We pulled together a great group of speakers, and we hope this session will give expo-goers a unique glimpse into consumer behavior. This is important, as it can help to inform sustainability practices and broader market trends for sustainable seafood.

We will have a diversity of perspectives and representation from the seafood industry, including retailers, restaurant and brands. Brandon Hill of Sustainable Restaurant Group joins the panel to share his insights from the restaurant perspective; Jennifer Lambert and Shelley Zang join us from retailers Loblaw (Canada) and Kroger (US), respectively; and Jan Tharp, President and CEO of Bumble Bee Seafoods, will represent the brand perspective. Leading the discussion will be food journalist and Green Plate Special cookbook author Christine Burns Rudalevige, and with unique insights into consumer engagement, Abbie Curtis O’Reilly from GlobeScan will share high-level North America survey results. From this diverse group of speakers, we’ll get to see what motivates them to ecolabel their products or place the MSC blue fish label on menus. We hope to demonstrate that the MSC blue fish is valuable verification to any brand, retailer or restaurant’s sustainability initiatives and commitment.

We hope the discussion will spark a broader conversation about how the industry engages with consumers on sustainability initiatives and what progress toward that looks like in the future.